Album Review: My Morning Jacket - Circuital
After the hit-and-miss mishmash of an album that was 2008's Evil Urges, it seemed almost impossible to guess which direction My Morning Jacket might take next. Would they return somewhat to the lonesome country-rock sound that had propelled them to popularity on third LP It Still Moves? Or were the shifting sands of '05's Z and the aforementioned Evil Urges likely to lead the Kentucky quintet further along a path lit by funky, soulful, psychedelic pop - a direction that ran the dual risk of alienating the band's original fanbase and proving commercially unwise? As it happens, Circuital sits somewhere between these two camps: a considerably more focused record than their last (with one glaring exception, it's actually difficult to find too much fault with any of these ten tracks), it nevertheless leaves the listener with more questions about the band than answers.
As with practically every MMJ release to date, there are a handful of genuinely outstanding songs here. Opener 'Victory Dance' builds beautifully - like any great opener should - before leading us straight into the title track, an epic seven-minute workout that reminds us all just how great these guys are at rocking out when they choose to let rip. In fact, the opening three songs all bode fantastically well, with 'The Day is Coming' making great use of what remains the band's finest asset - namely Jim James's stellar voice. Shorn of much of the trademark reverb of earlier records, James can achieve angelic performances when his own songs allow. Still one of the most distinctive instruments in modern music, it's just a shame it has tended to remain hidden at times of late behind the mountain of ideas the band have built up in the studio.
It's strangely ironic, then, that Circuital's only major misstep should come in the shape of 'Wonderful (The Way I Feel)', which sees James singing along to a single acoustic guitar. Bearing a startling resemblance to Evil Urges track 'The Librarian', the song's jaunty melody is inoffensively pretty, but its lyrics don't just tiptoe over the line marked schmaltz - they leap over it wearing a smug grin. A decent life-affirming song should connect with listeners and make them feel better about themselves; all 'Wonderful' manages to achieve is to inform us that James is blissfully happy with his lot, and as a result it's boring as hell. The rest of the album consists of some fairly straight-up (albeit brilliantly executed) rock songs; a playful, falsetto- and girl choir-assisted number ('Holdin' On to Black Metal'); and, in beautiful closer 'Movin' Away', a special treat that's not far short of something Neil Young could have stuck on After The Goldrush.
In keeping with its title, Circuital is a case of taking one step back to take one step forward. We're left not with a return to the sound of the band's early albums, but rather a refinement of where they've been headed for the past half a decade or so. And while this makes for a perfectly fine way to spend forty-five minutes, it also acts as a grating reminder that this incredibly talented outfit are still yet to reach their full potential. There's an out-and-out masterpiece in them somewhere, but for now we'll just have to wait a little longer for it.